I once enjoyed Taylor Swift’s music. “Teardrops on my Guitar” is somehow quintessentially teenager, with a dash of emotional angst that seems appropriate to the early stirrings of love. Eros is a time-honored part of the human experience, and Swift makes fine use of the swings of young romance in her country songs.
My fandom stops at her move into pop music. Somehow, her genre shift includes a move from innocence to experience. The kindness of Country Music Taylor is replaced with the Jaded Pop Star Taylor, and I think her music suffers for it.
I lack the credentials to credibly critique the music or lyrics of her latest hit, “Lover,” so I will confine my observations to the message conveyed through the official music video. In his Poetics, Aristotle contends that all art is imitative (mimetic); in as much as this is true, the imitations we consume encourage us to live a certain way. Through a catchy beat and smooth lyrics, Swift presents a false vision of love that has the potential to harm her audience’s pursuit of the good life.
The video opens focused on a young girl opening a present on Christmas day; the camera approaches from behind and above her, zooming in on her present: a snowglobe. In a Men in Black-esque zoom, we quickly go within the snowglobe to a dollhouse inhabited by a woman (Taylor Swift) and a man.
As the lyrics tell the story of these lovers, we see them move from party scene to party scene, dancing ecstatically together. When we first see the characters, we know they are lovers by their posture: they stand close together, locked in a romantic embrace. Over the course of the song, Taylor becomes jealous of a single glance her lover gives to another woman.
The song then splits into isolated scenes—he is on one floor of the doll’s house, she is on another. The lighting shifts, communicating that being alone is clearly bad. He climbs a ladder, joining her in the attic. The lovers are reunited.
The camera pans out—now we see that the girl is the daughter of the lovers in the song; the video closes with a hug between the girl and her parents. The final word of the song, “lover,” connotes the lack of formality of this couple’s relationship. While a viewer might assume that marriage precedes the child, there is no evidence to support such a conclusion. The stability of a married family is implied, without the commitment which would make such stability a reality.
There is a commendable component to this song: love matters, and being together is better than being alone. Such a principle appears as early as Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
That being said, my concern remains the central message of the video. We are shown an idyllic vision of an undefined erotic relationship; it seems safe to assume these lovers are not married. They met at a party, entered a sexual relationship, began living together, and have a perfect life without dishes, cleaning, cooking, or bills. “Lovers” then shows two happy people who have a delightful little girl, and this is their story.
Reality is missing from this story. Where is the betrayal when one cheats on the other? Where is the real pain found in living a life of sin? Where is the drama of realizing that she is pregnant, and their life will now revolve around their child? Where is the job search, the care for their house, all the mundane parts of life? Such real-life concerns have no place in the world imitated in “Lovers.”
Consider instead the view of love espoused in Fiddler on the Roof. “Do you love me?” Tevye asks his wife, Golde. “Do I love you?” she replies. “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes, Cooked your meals, cleaned your house. Given you children, milked the cow…” Later in the song, Golde shifts to an aside, and muses “For twenty-five years I've lived with him, Fought him, starved with him, Twenty-five years my bed is his, If that's not love, what is?”
Love is not found in temporary actions: parties, hookups, a perfect house. Instead, love is found in living together through the difficult parts of life together. It requires time, commitment, and faithfulness. Sometimes, love is uncomfortable.
Sondheim captured that sense in the song “Being Alive” in Company: “Someone to hold me too close./Someone to hurt me too deep./Someone to sit in my chair,/ And ruin my sleep,/And make me aware,/Of being alive.” Love draws us together, and real love, lasting love, endures through discomfort. Company is all about Bobby discovering that it is better to love, and to let someone so close that they can discomfort him; in the process of learning about love, Bobby discovers close relationships that last over time (an implied support of traditional marriage) are what makes him feel “alive.”
Such a vision runs counter to Swift’s “Lovers.” Swift depicts her vision of love as normative, and in that sense harms the imagination of the consumers of pop music. Inasmuch as those consumers are most likely to be young, impressionable teenage girls, Taylor is evangelizing a harmful message through her art.
Eros alone, the attraction principle, is fleeting. With nothing more than sexual energy to sustain it, erotic love fades quickly; it cannot lead to a commitment that will follow the beloved through “richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long” as both live.
Consider instead the marriage shown in the wordless “Married Life” in Pixar’s Up. Childhood friends who marry form dreams; instead of flying off to their adventurous South American dream, they smash the vacation savings jar for medical expenses, tires, and home repairs. Next to Ellie’s barrenness, we see Carl’s love sustain her through years of sorrow. In the midst of their pain and unfulfilled dreams of excitement, Pixar shows the audience a vision of the joy found in faithful, steadfast love. Carl’s love recalls the Pauline command: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church.” His love of Ellie was not about satisfying lust, or simply avoiding loneliness. Instead, his love was grounded in a sacrificial, covenantal commitment to travelling life together. Eros as the minor part in a dance between philia (friendship love) and agape (sacrificial love for the other) within a defined, covenantal relationship leads to a sustaining joy that rises to beauty over a lifetime.
So, why do I no longer care for Taylor Swift? It’s not because she is immoral or indecent (she truly is not that bad, compared to her peers in the pop music world). Instead, it’s because she is proclaiming a false narrative to an impressionable audience. She is making art, art which conveys a view of reality that people, unwittingly, will imbibe and seek to obtain. Swift once reminded me of the bittersweet moments of teenage love; now, she shows me just how decadent modernity is becoming. She has lost something vital, and neither knows what she has lost nor its value.